Episcopal educators gathered in Hollywood for biennial conference

Peter Cheney roasted and three educators honored
November 28, 2006

The 2006 biennial conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES) drew more than 900 Episcopal educators to Hollywood, California, from November 16-18 for the opportunity to "connect, celebrate, reflect and learn."

"Varieties of Gifts, but the Same Spirit" was the theme of the three-day gathering held at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

"There is a spirit in the biennial that people are often drawn to," said the Rev. Peter G. Cheney, executive director of NAES. "There is a sense of community within the Episcopal school world that is really very exciting. People make connections, meet new friends and are energized by the worship."

Approximately 50 workshops, led by professionals in the field and members of the Episcopal schools community, focused on several areas, including Leadership and Governance, Episcopal Identity, the Ministry of Teaching, and School Administration.

Featured speakers included Jeffrey S. Prater, Ph.D., founder and director of Psychology Resource Consultants in South Pasadena, California; Leonard R. Baker, M.D., co-founder and director of Descanso Medical Center for Development and Learning in La Cañada, California; Barbara Hoskins, Ph.D., an educational consultant who specializes in working with children experiencing challenges in the learning process; the Rev. James B. Lemler, director for mission for the Episcopal Church; and Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., nationally known clinical psychologist, parent educator and school consultant.

Bringing a message of hope "in a time of immense change," Lemler led a special focus session titled "Leadership That Makes a Difference."

"Leadership and governance both are utterly essential to the strength of Episcopal schools," said Lemler, who for more than 20 years was rector of a parish with an associated Episcopal school. "Those charged with the governance, the board members and rectors, heads and senior administrators, need to attend to the quality of their governance, education and strength of their boards because good boards make a tremendous difference in creating good schools."

Defining governance as "trying to live out the messiness of leadership," Lemler engaged participants in discussions about naming the good, reflecting on circles of trust and describing leadership. He said he hoped they "realize their capacity to lead" and understand that a particular role of Episcopal schools is to "teach leadership to young people."

"There is a major focus even in the Episcopal Church today about leadership, not only what it looks like and how best to be a leader but also drawing people into the role of leader," said Cheney. "One of our principal concerns as an association is how to attract both lay and ordained into leadership roles in schools."

Sharing stories about his father, granddaughter and former students, Cheney set the tone of the conference as preacher for the opening Eucharist at Hollywood United Methodist Church, saying, "We are all called by God to make a difference in life and to embrace a deeper sense of stewardship and connectedness to all humankind."

"Episcopal schools exist and are meant to embrace this call," said Cheney, who will retire from NAES in June 2007.

The single most significant and unique dynamic of the Episcopal approach to education, said Cheney, is "our emphasis on the interdependence of usefulness and God's joy."

Students from several of the Episcopal schools in the Diocese of Los Angeles provided music for both the opening and closing Eucharists.

Honoring leaders

A plenary breakfast also served as an award ceremony for Serena Beeks, founding head of St. Mark's Episcopal School in Upland, California, and Laurie Hogan, head of school at Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City, both of whom received the Ruth Jenkins Award for outstanding service to and leadership in Episcopal schools and NAES. The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, chaplain at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, received the John D. Verdery Award for outstanding service to and leadership in Episcopal schools and the association. Jenkins and Verdery were co-founders of NAES. Jenkins was an advocate for women's leadership in the Episcopal Church, and Verdery was headmaster of the Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut, for 33 years.

Cheney was surprised by the standing ovation during a "roast" in which he was honored for his nine years of NAES leadership. During his tenure, the association has increased its membership by more than 50 percent.

"There has clearly been, in Peter's nine years, a significant new higher plateau of professionalism," said David H. Charlton, president of the NAES governing board.

The Rev. Jefferson C. Stephens, Jr., executive director of the Commission on Schools for the Diocese of Los Angeles, said Cheney is not only an "extraordinary educator" but a "sensitive, realistic and very spiritual one."

"One of my hopes before I end my tenure next summer is to kick off a coalition of urban Episcopal schools so that they can support each other and look at ways in which they can secure funding and also begin to model more broadly to help other initiatives start," said Cheney.

He cited Harlem Academy in New York City and Esperanza Academy-School of Hope in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as examples of new schools in urban areas where historically underserved populations live.

Announcing his retirement, Cheney said, "I would like to work as an interim leader in one or more of our schools, where my passion for serving young people and for assisting schools in times of transition can be expressed more directly."

An avid baseball fan, Cheney was given an autographed jersey from New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.

Episcopal school educators who had survived Hurricane Katrina were also given special recognition. Cheney said NAES had provided funding for leaders from that area to attend the conference.

Teacher Day brought nearly 400 teachers to the conference. Episcopal schools in the Diocese of Los Angeles closed for the day so that teachers could attend.

Wendy Mogel, keynote speaker for Teacher Day, spoke humorously on "The Dark Side of Parenting."

Mogel said she hoped her message for teachers would help them decode parental behavior and not take it personally when parents take out their anxiety on teachers and schools. The trend that she has witnessed over the past ten years is "parents loving their independent school and expecting more of it."

She urged teachers to put some distance between themselves and parents who have "good intentions" but can sometimes be "very pushy."

"The first alliance is to the school values, and then the student, and then the parent," she said.

Concluding the conference, Cheney said "we are about human formation and understanding that all of us are spiritual beings who are held together by a loving God."

"The ministry of work in Episcopal schools is one of service," he said. "We want to celebrate that, hold it up and model it to the broader society and then go back and help our students continue to understand that is what basically makes us human, makes us serve and that's where the greatest joy in life is to be found."